Caesar

By Hazem Fahmy

Dante’s Purgatorio, Canto 6, Line 112: Come, see your Rome who, widowed and alone, weeps bitterly; both day and night, she moans: “My Caesar, why are you not at my side?”

1
In the Middle East we have our own term for dictatorship. We call it: “الدولة العميقة”, the “Deep Nation”.

Deep as in a rotting root stretched throughout the soil that feeds you.

Deep as in a cancerous spine holding your diseased body together.

Deep as in poetry, like an ode to Stockholm Syndrome, to a father who lullabies you to bed before reaching under the covers.

Americans ask me why Arabs love dictators and I say abusive relationships are hard to get over.
When Mubarak fell back in 2011, Cairo couldn’t help but cry, sent him a text message: اسفين يا ريس. Please come back.

Virtually every Arab country has been under a brutal regime since the fifties.

My country has only known men who express their love with boot heels and batons. You try and imagine the trauma of a nation black-eyed from its own fist, the self-hate that comes with seeing your own body eat itself.

Forgiveness on a national scale is no easy feat.

It is realizing that your body cannot be blamed for what has been done to it. It is realizing that dictatorship is an STD that can’t be passed consensually.

It grows and blisters on the testicles of men who see the world as their oyster, men who fuck the oyster senseless, hand it lemons for its sores, tell it to make lemonade and move on, says there is no place here for terrorists when it tries to move on.

2
In Connecticut, I turn on the television and see Wolfe Blitzer’s wide eyes gazing in wonder at me, see Megyn Kelly flick her lustrous hair and ask me what’s wrong with my country.
As if we asked for it, as if every Arab nation got down on one knee with ring and bouquet, smiled at the bruises, laughed at the cigarette burns. As if this wasn’t an arranged marriage decades in the making.

As if you weren’t a bored matchmaker who just wanted to see what would happen, a child playing with matches then gasping at the fire. Grows up to be a fireman. Has us pay to put out the flames. Marvels at how fast a brown body can burn, puts that shit on CNN. Tells you to look at how bad of an example these people are setting for their children.
Americans ask me why Arabs can’t just choose democracy and I tell them it is not as simple as a break up song.

Egypt will not wake up tomorrow and make a new Spotify playlist. Even if it does, you will not listen.

Even if you do, it will be in the background of a house party. You will drink your Miller High Life and toast to freedom, how intoxicating its taste is.

You will remind yourself that Muslims don’t drink alcohol. You will wonder why it is they shut themselves out of the world.

White Americans talk about democracy like it’s a bag of seeds you buy at Home Depot, sprinkle across your backyard before freedom grows fully bloomed from the soil, petals red and blue outstretched.

They talk like all soil is the same.

Like every seed comes with a 100% satisfaction sticker, guaranteed to give you a luscious plant.

They forget how one strain of unwanted plant can kill an entire farmland. They forget that some seeds give you strange fruit. They forget that we have been planting our own crops for over seven thousand years.

3
There’s a reason self-love is tied to revolution, it’s a two way street.

In the right context, the word radical can be applied to anything from an uprising to a selfie.

If nothing else, they both state: I am worth preserving.

Forgiveness is no easy feat.

The Middle East is still moaning. Cairo is still waiting for Caesar, still looking to the words of a dead white man for self-validation. But my people are still a body, which is to say, I am a white blood cell, which is to say, the virus has not yet won, which is to say: حلوة بلادى السمرة, بلادى الحرة. أنا على الربابة بغنى. مملكش غير إنى أغنى و أقول تعيشى يا مصر.

white dog

By Shadab Zeest Hashmi

reaches my chin and has a twin as white as my baby sister’s ash as white as that mirror lying flat on the funeral bed in the verandah for us to go around its glare as white as the sash the bribe the bonus the paper not signed for peace in one country then another and another so dog yes bite the ears that hear the endless lie resigned to mind becoming myth bite the eye that saw ruin for room in a house bent like whip-cracked spine bite the tongue no bird envied bite the voice under the weight of all your white

Iman Humaydan’s The Weight of Paradise, a story of memory, violence, and the elusiveness of homeland

“The homeland that killed us in its name”
Fiction Book Review
by Eman M.A. Elshaikh

Iman Humaydan’s latest novel The Weight of Paradise is a poignant evocation of the fight to defend and restore memory through the cyclical violence, exile, and suffering which seeks to annihilate it. Set mostly in Beirut in 1978 and 1994, the story lives “in the heart of the apocalypse” during the Lebanese Civil War and also emerges from its debris, struggling to piece itself together into an authentic whole. In this Beirut, even small distances are difficult to traverse, as the paths are encircled with violence or buried beneath its aftermath.

“Reconstructing, reconstruction,” laments Sabah, a central character who ties together and ruptures the narrative at different points. “Every day on radio and television they talk like this, too. Maybe they want to build and construct so that people will forget.”

Indeed, the novel feels like a rejection of forgetting, as the characters in their own ways are obsessed with retrieval. The novel interrogates memory and its antagonists masterfully. It probes the process of destruction and reconstruction and the ways in which they are irretrievably bound up in death, violence, and historical revisionism. In doing so, it is an unflinching portrayal of the violence that lives alongside the characters, who “had become skilled at managing their lives in its shadow.”

Humaydan intertwines the story of Maya, a recently widowed writer and mother who returns to Beirut from Paris in 1994 following her husband’s passing, with the stories Maya finds forgotten in a suitcase in an abandoned building. In the suitcase, Maya finds Noura, Kemal, and Sabah, and she instantly becomes obsessed with unpacking their history through their photographs, letters, and diaries.

She seeks out the eccentric but heart-breaking Sabah, an older woman living alone in the old Beirut neighbourhood of Khandaq al-Ghamiq, waiting for her disappeared husband to return and tending to her small garden, even through bombs and gunfire. Living virtually as a recluse, she initially meets Maya with hesitation, but ultimately tells Maya about Noura and Kemal’s lives as well as her own.

Sabah’s stories and recollections provide Maya with the connective tissue that brings Noura and Kemal’s story together. She learns about Noura’s self-imposed exile from Damascus after a tragedy in her family and how this exile becomes permanent once Noura starts writing the truth about what happened. She learns about the violence that follows such truths and will stop at nothing to silence them. She learns about Kemal, Noura’s lover in Istanbul, and the fragile life they try to build together. But these stories and their tellers are often treacherous, and Maya, like Noura, fights to save truth from oblivion.

Humaydan’s main achievement with this novel, which is full of despair and yet buoyed with a promise of love and hope, is in allowing the reader to “enter history through countless endless gates,” and in doing so, reread history. It imbues the narrative with a subtle promiscuity that disrupts even the reader’s own recollection. In doing so, it forces us to confront the silences and lacunas in our stories and how they can both ruin us and save us. It is also a meditation on the dangers of invented memory and the need to bear witness always. This force is present even in the sweet love story between Noura and Kemal. In her diary, Noura writes, “with him, my doubts about history books started to gain power and take on new meaning.”

Humaydan writes in a poignant and confessional voice, which shines most brightly in the pages of Noura’s diary and the letters from Kemal, where they write about loss, violence, and lost homelands. They trace their wounds together and look for origins and resting places. In their histories, one finds Arabs, Armenians, Kurds, and Turks and the lands that shift and subsume them under violent nations, lamenting “the homeland that killed us in its name” and yet finding fragments of homeland scattered everywhere.

Though these deliberations on homeland and its erasure are thoughtful, there is also a questionable sense that the violence and oppression of the Middle East are somehow primordial or inevitable. The various scenes, in Damascus, Beirut, and Istanbul, are seemingly always engulfed by death and violence. In these places, both the repressive state and its resistors, both communists and capitalists alike are irrationally cruel. A looming tyrannical government occludes all individuals, who are anonymous, interchangeable, and sublimated within classes or sects. It threatens to destroy indiscriminately and without reason. Government actors, like the ubiquitous and senseless “mukhabarat” are equally anonymous and robotic, incapable of poetry and truth. Though the novel is committed to history, these places seem to exist outside of it.

Perhaps this indictment of these societies as irretrievably violent is in fact an indictment of men, who in the novel are either absent or violent. Even the boys in the novel attain masculinity through violencing women, who in turn “retaliate against oppression by oppressing themselves.” In this novel, men push women out of their homelands, punishing them for their desires and their consciousness. “Oppression pushes women to emigrate, to flee,” Noura writes, “it’s the kind of oppression that often comes in the form of a man.” Indeed, Kemal, who was dressed as a girl in early childhood in order to avoid a curse against the family’s men, seems to be the only exception.

There is no denying the beauty of the intricate lives woven together by Humaydan in this touching novel. However, in The Weight of Paradise, some of these threads are too thin. The reader is riveted by the textured inner worlds of Noura and Kemal but is left craving more of characters like Sabah and Maya. Sabah’s fascinating story still craves excavation, as her inner life remains opaque. The reader gets glimpses of her effervescence and her desire to fly and senses the decay of that spirit over time. Through the moving stories of her two lives, her desire for freedom, and her will to be a witness, the reader does not truly get a sense of her pain, but merely its imminence. Maya’s voice is poetic yet truncated, and though the backdrop of her life is sketched, the reader gets only a hazy sense of its detail. Through the suitcase, Maya inherits a reservoir of memory and seems to exist primarily to dip into it. Because of this, the novel ends before its force can be fully explored and resolved. In other words, the problem with The Weight of Paradise is that it was too brief.

The Weight of Paradise is a powerful call to question our histories, and in doing so, it is a call to question the violence that lives at the heart of it and possibly at the heart of our natures. “But this is us: we feed the poor, we laugh at a passing joke, we love, we mourn, we dance, but we also kill our neighbours in civil wars. Since we are like that, how can we describe ourselves?

Sukoon interviews Arab-American poet and scholar Mohja Kahf

Immigration, Feminism, Revolution

“What is language for if it cannot function for us when we desperately need it?” – Mohja Kahf

Rewa Zeinati: Mohja Kahf, you are a professor of comparative literature and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Arkansas. In addition to Hagar Poems, published last year by the University of Arkansas Press, you are the author of E-mails from Scheherazad, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, and Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque. You were born in Damascus, Syria, to parents who immigrated to the United States in 1971 when you were almost four years old, and you spent your childhood in the Midwest. Where is home to you? And does one ever stop asking this question?

Mohja Kahf: Never. I’ve moved I count seven major times in my life, one of them a life-changing immigration about which I was too young to have an opinion. Finally I thought I had settled where I am now. I’ve been here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. But when the Syrian Revolution started, for a minute I thought I would have a chance to reverse that immigration, to go “home again,” and I knew I was ready to take that chance. To leave everything again. But of course there is no “home again—” and for Syrians, that is now true in a particularly painful way. But the Syria-hope the Syria-chance shook me up from my illusory settledness and now I know I also am not home yet. I need still to find what I want and seek it and make it home as best I can.

RZ: Your poems explore themes of Arab identity, Muslim identity, and feminist politics. How important is religion to one’s sense of identity?

MK: Well, it varies depending on the person, of course. How important is it to mine has evolved over time. For the last sixteen years in the U.S., however, I’ve found that even though I’ve been ready to talk from another speaking position, something besides religious affiliation, the world keeps wanting to hear me speak as a “Muslim feminist” or “Muslim American.” There is work needing to be done there and I happen to be equipped with the tools for it and so I keep getting pulled back to shoulder some of that work, although I have other work going on to which I also devote energy and wish to see realized. So for example, will I ever be able to publish just a manuscript of love poems? Without bagging it as “Muslim woman love poems?” Hey, I have the manuscript—somebody find me a publisher please.

RZ: The poems you are sharing with us in the current edition of Sukoon are stylistically quite different from your previous poems. What compelled the change?

MK: Two things. I went to a poetry reading where a poet had “list poems,” and the experience sort of challenged me to write list poems. And secondly, Syria and silence. Meaning, I was at the end of my ability to speak about Syria. An impasse. No sentences were getting through. I was at the end of my belief in the efficacy of language, almost. I felt the end in sight of the vocation of writing, almost. What is language for if it cannot function for us when we desperately need it? need all three components: text, sender, recipient – need someone at the other end to hear what someone sends out into the world, to hear responsively. In Syria, by the regime for decades, language and narrative and expressive function has been so utterly abused and distorted. And then, regarding Syria in the world, the expressive function of language and writing, also so abused and distorted. So this “list poem encounter” seemed to come just then as a possible path out of my impasse. Cut through all that. Forget syntax. Forget grammar which has been manipulated to obscure truths. Let go and sink down to the level of words. Broken words. One word at a time, one phrase at most, like what would be the only units one could manage to get out if one were being strangled or bled out and lay gasping. Just one word, then another. Get it out. Articulate through inarticulateness. If you can do nothing else. Those are gasp poems. Gasp. Syria. Blood. Betrayal. Gasp. I’m too broken to do more than a one-word line. Take it. Gasp. Make sense of it. Carry it on to the next. Gasp. Run. Gasp.

RZ: Your latest book, Hagar Poems , is a collection written over the course of 20 years. Many of the pieces were written in the ‘90s, but some were written not too long before the date of publication. Tell us about your experience writing this book, and why it took so long to complete. When is a manuscript ever complete?

MK: You’re kind and attentive to have read it and paid attention to such detail as the dates. It’s not complete; it’s never complete. For starters, there are specifically two more good Hajar poems I wish I had not culled out of it. I had forgotten those two set aside and wish I’d put them back in time. There was a third put-aside poem that I managed to get back into the manuscript before publication. Then there are other poems I had pulled out that maybe were not as strong. I pruned and culled for years, decades, because I wanted it to get published; earlier versions of the manuscript were rejected for publication over the years. All the while, up to a certain point in time, I was also adding more Hajar poems (and then pruning and culling from those too).

I first encountered Hajar when my first baby got sick and had a febrile seizure—first time I had seen one, terrifying. Here’s this baby, this life, and you are responsible for keeping it alive, and it’s 3am and where did everyone go? I felt abandoned, tricked, like, this is the fine print of the family program that you signed, get married have a baby, but nobody mentioned you how poor you’re going to be and how alone even if married, with the nature of patriarchy and with immigration and today’s mobility and the global economic system and the lack of universal healthcare all stripping you of those people who might have been around to help in another kind of world. When I woke up from that, I thought, damn, we have glossed over Hajar’s story. There is no way it is as sugar-coated as we learn it in the tradition. We had to silence a whole lot of it to just fast-forward from her in the desert alone with her child and desperate to, bingo, whatever platitudes the traditional view gets out of it wrapped up in a bow. Let me unwrap this bow. I want to cut it to shreds. The bits of text about Hajar in the various scriptures are elliptical and cryptic enough to allow for imaginative spaces; you can cut in and interpolate in ways the traditional readings of the texts do not.

And once you start with Hajar, the same project is waiting to be done with so many other figures. Some other figures pulled me over the years and I spent some time on Maryam, on Asiya, on Balqis. But hey everyone, be my guest, there is an endless amount of reconfiguring that could happen with Hajar and her sisters, and with countless other matter of old, if it happens to grab you anew.

And as for the appropriateness of doing that (I guess it’s to the conservative readership I say this bit), well, if it is not there in order to grab us anew, what is it there for?

RZ: Tell us about your experience writing the sex column Ask Mohja, for the website Muslim Wake up! How did the idea come about?

MK: Well, those were a heady few minutes, hah. The column wasn’t called “Ask Mohja;” it was actually called “Sex and the Ummah,” and I was one of two columnists who were supposed to alternate, but it ended up being mostly me, and then some guest columnists I pulled in to try to still have alternating voices. I am delighted to say that it was the place where one of Randa Jarrar’s fabulous short stories was first published, as a guest column. It somehow got tagged in people’s minds as a “sex advice column,” but it was never that – it was a sexually themed fiction column, is all, mostly fiction pieces, although one time I did pull in a “sex advice” guest column by a gynecologist, a Palestinian American feminist. I had sent in “Little Mosque Poems” to the MuslimWakeUp!.com website editors to start with, in a spirit of feminist Muslim self-critique. An then they and I started conversing, and one of our conversations was about how there’s this Muslim belief that Islam is a sex-positive religion, and then there’s this modern stereotype of Islam as sexually repressive, and the truths are so much richer and more varying than those two positions, so what about exploring the gap between these ideas by delving into sexual experiences from a “Muslim angle” whatever that may mean.

Then there was Abu Ghraib, the exposure of sexual abuse there by U.S. soldiers, and that deflated my joy in doing the column.

What deflated it also was my sense that white readerships wanted to exploit the idea for the wrong reasons, Orientalist reasons. I started getting offers from agents who were interested for all the wrong, imperialist cultural politics, reasons. Well, I had received a death threat from an Islamic extremist reader, and so of course that attracted all the would-be makers of a new neo-con Muslim woman voice or something. And that was not a direction I wanted to go, ever. Man, I coulda been a star if I’d gone that direction, I coulda been rich! Haha.

The whole endeavor of the website was one of progressive Muslims self-critique and of Muslims critiquing conservative Muslim discourse, and that is a project I support. But a few of the writers started going in the direction where “progressive” meant “be a tool of imperialist cultural politics,” not progressive at all, not in solidarity with the struggles of oppressed people intersectionally. Just a tiny number, but they got a lot of press. It dampened my enthusiasm for being there with them under that “progressive” label.

RZ: What advice would you give emerging writers? Especially women writers of color?

MK: Give yourself time to take care of your Self. Give your Self space for creativity. Don’t fill your life with people who won’t nourish you. Remove soul-crushers from your daily life. Also, the people with whom you exchange energies most, their world view will try enter yours, so be careful what you let enter, where you work, where you live. In this white supremacist structure of our times, it is easy as a woman of color to be pushed to be what the structure needs, but is it what You need? What do You need and want? Seek that. This is all advice that I am constantly having to give my Self.

RZ: How important are literary journals, if at all?

Tremendously important. Without them we would just have those bigger journals that can get bigger money. We would have fewer and narrower channels where expression must be funneled. With them, we have multitudinous avenues for a multiplicity of voices and audiences. Without a reader goading it on, wanting it, a poem can wither and die. And with a reader who wants only certain kinds of poems, only certain kinds of poems will be written and see publication. The small literary journals find readers who are hungry for just that unexpected poetry but didn’t know what it was until they encountered it.


RZ: What are you working on right on?

MK: A volume of poetry about Syria, about the Syrian Revolution. For whoever will listen. For us, Syrians, if no one else.

Look, I’m sorry if the Syrian Revolution reads to the world’s progressives and leftist only as a conspiracy for rightist and imperialist agendas. It seems like I have to apologize for the existence of Syrians who do actually suffer the enormous human rights abuses of the Assad regime, to apologize for this to a world that does not want to hear this because it doesn’t fit current progressive agendas. The fact that Syrians are also getting abused by the Islamist extremists who are manipulating the grassroots protest movement for their own ends and in turn getting manipulated by regional and world powers only makes it more urgent that the original Syrian grassroots civilian uprising be recognized and respected. Just because the Syrian uprising doesn’t fit what progressives thought about the regime, doesn’t mean the human rights abuse doesn’t exist. Deal with that. Change your eye to adjust to the fact of our existence as Syrians. I say that, while doing internal critique of those Syrians who are selling out the Syrian Revolution to rightist agendas. My poetry on the Syrian Revolution is my own attempt to deal with the multiple silencing of Syrians, by the regime for five decades, by the right and left globally, by each other. Things grew to such a pass that a Syrian cannot find a space to speak amid so many different kinds of silencing. For a while I was so disheartened in so many ways internal and external that I stopped writing Syria altogether. It seemed so futile wherever one turned, like pounding on a thick beveled glass wall that was soundproof. What was the point of any writing at all? Fuck that; I’m back. Publish me.

Dust

By Lana Habash

Stone streets of an old city,
carts lined with rings of fresh bread,
seeded sesame, the scent
of coffee mixed with zalabieh,
where songs of prayer mark time–
here, the hand of God is pressed
in stone. Touch your hand there
palm to palm,
and time will pass
through your fingers,
more enduring than belief. Uniformed men
set against the sky, the dawn
ignores them. A young boy stands,
circled by men, guns
slung over shoulders
like shopping bags. The boy
leans back, delivers the blow,
runs. He knows where and how.
And like the Sea the merchants part,
then rushing back,
one current now, an old man slows
the push of his cart, a woman
slows too and smiles.

***

Stories We Tell

How Haja stood at the door,
hands raised to her son
Don’t come in
with those.

How he took
the grenades
from each pocket
as if they were lemons,
with a smile that said,
There’s no need for all that.
Or how the khuwana
stopped our men,
bent over the road,
the last pieces of home
on their backs,
how the men
lifted their heads
to ask Did you sell it
furnished?

Or how the checkpoint soldier
questioned the farmer
What do you
feed your chickens?

day after day,
then turned him back
for the wrong answer.
How finally the farmer
said with a shrug,
I give them money.
They decide for themselves.

Or the young boys loaded
on an army truck,
set free
by pleading hands,
women
who cry My son!
and tear their hair.
How the women took
the puzzled faces
to their own,
saying, Go to your own home now,
child.

How on the morning
of tawjihi,
the schoolboy
arrived early,
stopped at the designated
knot on the string,
threw down his books,
took off his shirt,
to demand
that the beating
be quick.

Or how the teacher,
now the line
that won’t
be crossed,
laughed
as she picked up the stone,

The land
knows
who loves it.

***

Stories We Don’t

Women who carry life
give birth to the dead
at the waiting points
on the open road.

An olive tree on its side,
gnarled fingers reach to the sky,

land is not place.

Of course there was the house
lost,
child loaded
onto a garbage truck,
eyes toward home,
eyes always toward home,
and of course there were those
not so lucky as that,
who died on the long walk,

and of course for the living
the attic came next,
the cold floor,
the seven bodies.
Yes, there were tents, walls, stone,
perhaps a house,
and the names our children bear:
Jaffa
Haifa
Beisan
Jenin,

what a people must swallow:
the hollows of a culture not ours,
the land wet with blood
of others like us
thrown into
the singular
strangeness
of exile,
the thirty years it took
to see their shadows
on every Washington and Main,
this land of ghosts,
the outlines of a brother here,
a sister there,
their eyes, accusing
their eyes, the future.

Maybe regret is passed on
to daughters.
We carry it with us,
pieces of home
on our backs,
one camp to another,
waiting.

And yes,
we remember, still see
her, sister, bearing life,
as she begged for maya
on the dusty road, see her stumble
on the stones,
push herself
up,
bearing life,
stumble again,
till finally
she lay still,
the dust
from the road
mixed with her hair
and dry lips
bearing life–

dust
means something different
to us.

Two poems by Mohja Kahf

Flora Fauna Syria
By Mohja Kahf

plum trees
Syria
cherry trees
Syria
janeric trees
Syria
like me, like you
Syrian LGBTQ
police brutality
Razan Ghazzawi
free press
student protest
city protest
water hoses
electrocuting billyclubs
live fire
laurel trees
laurel soap she handmade
mama, what he brought me
crates of grapes
and underneath the grapes,
my love packed the apple crates
starvation sieges
Yarmouk, Khaled
Ferguson, Michael
Daraya, Ghiyath
water bottles
Standing Rock
drought
water-sharing
food-sharing
truckbed of eggplants
sarin
transparency
tanks
Tianenmen Square
Tahrir Square
Daraa al-Balad
Clock Tower Square
Bayda village
I am a free woman, daughter of a free woman
local bodies
local council
power-sharing
solar panels
power-hoarding
president-for-life
Adra Women’s Prison
conscience
unconscious
electrocution
torture tire
Razan Zeitouneh
cats of Douma
olive tree
orchard
mountain
holy sea
rape farms
field clinics
field morgues
torched crops
scorched lungs
kheerota
azadi
roommate
mate tea
teacher
Cain
grain
wheat fields
Abel
enable
bread-oven
blood-oven
I am a human being
almond trees
quince trees
walnut trees
laurel trees
laurel soap she handmade
and underneath the crate of grapes
my love packed the apple crates

Aleppo the Necklace Broke All the Words Fell Apart
By Mohja Kahf

oud
my spine
Aleppo
Aleppo
pine nuts
pistachio
provisions
pizmonim
they have taken the one I love
cluster
melody
embroidery
woolens
pillow
swollen
Aleppo
sworn to me
evil eye
turquoise
tiny blue buttons
earlobe soft flesh
thin gold hoop
blood river
maqam
adhan
seeron ahkchig
a dream in quarter tones
lowered lashes
bone juts wound pus
gouged gagged
terrified
Aleppo love
answer me
alarm
tocsin
siren
music
words
use-
less
amulet
madstone
lodestone
amaun, amaun
Halab Halab
Halabi

Dark Music

By Eman Elshaikh

they have been singing for so long,
with the resonance of truth and justice, sonorous,
that i didn’t really hear them beat the war drum,
in their own ways.
i missed the discordant notes.
but weren’t the stories always living
in that dissonance?

they sing, booming, stentorian.
but other things always have a way of rising, louder
and revealing the true consonance
beneath the noise
(if only for those who offer their hearing)
and for all their ballads,
their elegies for lost truth,
it is this truth to which they are truly averse.

the violence
of this view from nowhere
this sound without a chamber
ringing without ideology
goes unsung, without hymns to decry it.
perhaps our own propaganda was always harmonious
or, perhaps heard only
at undetectable frequencies.

empires always have the best orchestras
which can make art of cacophony,
insulate silences

give them their own register.

The War Was On

By Steven Schreiner

The sea was turning to oil. Many dead
sooner or later. Wet feathers that never dried
burning without fire in the vast sun. At dawn
the flat road of water wimpled like a sheet
too heavy, pulling down the clothesline. The poor
neighborhoods hidden in brick, the white-sided houses
and the pinched daylight, the grease of meat
in the straining updraft full of sweat.

One day the wind died and nothing revived it.
Lichen scrawled across the trees, turning them
to living stone. There were no mirrors
to bathe in. We ate dirt. Waiting for rain
the leaves upturned and never reverted.

What leaves were left were turned to lace.

Every day the birds made their singular pleas
which sounded like any other. There is a god for each
creature, sang one. An airship is arriving
full of destinies, said another. Sun coming out,
sun coming out, sun coming out. BE
CAREFUL! Be careful! Be, be, be
careful! Where did you–you–you–you
go. A word with you. I want
a word with you. Lick it. Lick it. Lick it.
Weep. Weep. Weep. Weep. Can’t wait.

If I thought of you at all
if I had any regrets
if I bore it all in a better manner
if I had never killed

photographs not taken*

after Marwa Helal and Safia Elhillo
By George Abraham

the scalpel that removed a country
from my teta’s chest, rusting in the hands
of a surgeon who was, perhaps, a zionist;
my mother’s face crossing the finish line
of a marathon for breast cancer research, her
cousin’s name scrawled across the damp running bib;
Palestinian Olympic swimmer takes gold,
rewriting the ocean of her history; the ghosts
of refugee children making a choir of his weeping;

***

family portrait in post-racial society with
filter equating my olive skin to
my brother’s smoldering earth;
my cousin shouting allahou akbar out of irony
after passing through TSA without
being quarantined for the first time;
my father, before the toupee settled on his
head, mid-laugh & the country escaping
from the gap in his front teeth;

***

my head, freshly shaven, for a melanoma
biopsy catching the Florida sunset:
swim practice;
the benign sunspot they removed
from my scalp – brown flesh patch
floating in saline;
screenshot of Google Maps before the West Bank
& Gaza were 2 patches of nameless
flesh outlined in black dots;

***

my Teta, age 2, after being
baptized in the Dead Sea, holds a
seashell to her ear: a history lesson;
my great aunt’s obituary reading “place of birth:
Jerusalem” & the israeli flag waving
over her open casket;
family portrait in Ramallah,
full-toothed smiles at sunset:
past or present;
an olive tree & magnolia tree, planted
side-by-side, overlooking a cemetery,
mixing displaced soils;
the Haifa skyline every time
so where’s home for you?
falls out of a stranger’s mouth;

***

a lifeguard pulls my 4-year not-corpse from
the pool floor at my first swim lesson:
second baptism;
white man turns his back to drowning
daughter at my community pool: a brief
history of Israel/Palestine;
a cell frozen, mid-mitosis, houses conflicting
entities in a single membrane:
two state solution paradox;
my zionist biology teacher lectures
on respiration
& i drown –

*the poem was selected as a runner up for Emerge Literary Journal’s Civil Disobedience Poetry Contest, and will be published by Emerge Literary Journal

Three poems by Susan Rich

What We Were Taught / What We Have Lost

One of us will never suffer, you promised
as if words were as simple as offering a car ride
for pistachio ice cream on Sunday afternoon.
As easy as turning on the evening news
to hear the fractured screams of a father—
his child killed by mortar fire.
You promised I would be loved in the way
only a father can say, like a spell uttered three times
in the garden with trellises of jasmine flower.
Dad, today I need miracle ice cream
for the boys on the beach in Gaza,
a soccer ball between them.
Their lifeless bodies haunt me
and more, the young faces of their friends.
You promised I would never suffer, father,
but imagine the families checking websites
for their loved ones, for the innocent dead, targeted
by the country we were taught to believe in.
Sometimes I still look for my friends Amjad and Samir,
boys who drove me to Gaza’s shoreline decades ago,
dreaming of five star hotels, an airport.
Father, the day you were diagnosed in Boston, I dressed slowly
and then climbed back into bed, a green blanket
over my head as the bus exhaust rose up,
as the restaurant workers next door
picked stones from grains of rice,
speaking in a language as foreign to me as the future.
Now death arrives each night over Twitter—
the bluebird of death you might say.
And I think of your promise. Your face.

~for Ahed Atef Bakr, Ishmail Mohamed Bakr, Mohamed Ramez Bakr, Zakaria Ahed Bakr and Abraham Rich

In Other Words Bookstore, I Imagine

the lives of the Women of the Word
and What We Leave Behind.

Secondhand volumes lined-up together

debate late into night’s Mourning Hour.
On a side table, My Hope for Peace,

signed by Jehan Sadat and the Middle East

enters this quickly fading bookshop
accompanied by a phantom Lemon Tree.

Out-of-print mothers and daughters join in

as I turn the aisle, learn Drops of the Story
glimpse Naomi’s, Words Under the Words.

Some texts are made for each other—

Travelling Rooms and After the Last Sky.
There’s a developing interest in Water Logic

and the bestseller, What We Have Lost.

If I were to walk again through my life,
Down Roads That Do Not Depart

keep Half of a Yellow Sun in my shirtsleeves,

would My Happiness Bear No Relation to Happiness?
I lift Tomorrow’s Tomorrow from the upper shelf:

Dear Memory Board, Dear Everyone’s Pretty

and Nine Parts Desire, dear Musical Elaborations—
Open the Cloud Box. Taste the Olives,

Lemons and Zaa’tar; The Space Between Footsteps.

Redress The Butterfly’s Burden, the Unreal and the Real—
The Question of Palestine.


Checkpoint

Gaza City, Gaza

I arrive via optimism, in the aftermath of Oslo,
into a roomful of bright teachers,

Welcome to my class on human rights theater,

for Palestinians who have known only its absence.
There are concerns, and then, much excitement,

over the abolishment of classroom rows.

No more first or last students; an equal footing.
On our last day together, a few students ask for my passport—

the men look terribly serious with long rifles
slung over their shoulders. In reality—

these are water guns borrowed from a teacher’s son.

Our play is called, Checkpoint, they tell me.
Each day we live this way.